From no chance to almost impossible.
Thomas Tuchel’s stance on Chelsea’s hopes of advancing to the Champions League semifinals might be softening, if only slightly.
“It is very unlikely that we make it,” Tuchel said Monday, “but it’s worth trying.”
Rewind to last week and Tuchel dismissed his team’s chances of overturning a 3-1 loss to Real Madrid in the first leg of the quarterfinals at Stamford Bridge.
“No,” was his terse reply to a question about whether Chelsea’s title defense was still alive.
And although that response — coming just a few minutes after the match ended — might have been borne out of a sense of frustration, it’s easy to see why he was so pessimistic looking ahead to Tuesday’s second leg at Santiago Bernabeu.
Aside from the two-goal deficit and the opponent being a record 13-time European champion, Tuchel pointed out that Chelsea’s main advantage over Madrid — the physicality and energy of its players — has been diluted this season.
That’s because Chelsea has already played 52 games in all competitions, including a trip to the Middle East for the Club World Cup in February and 30 matches in what Tuchel described as the “most demanding” domestic league in the world.
Madrid has played seven fewer games this season and was able to rest key players, like Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, for the 2-0 win over Getafe in the Spanish league on Saturday.
Tuchel also said Madrid being able to make five substitutions in La Liga games this season — in England, teams can only make three — left his team at a “huge disadvantage” and explained why Chelsea couldn’t play with its usual intensity against Madrid’s ageing but high-quality midfield in the first leg.
Last season, Chelsea overpowered Madrid over two legs in the semifinals, drawing the first leg in Spain — albeit at Madrid’s training ground while the Bernabeu was under renovation — and winning the second leg 2-0.
“It’s not always easy to play a physical game,” Tuchel said. “We are a team that needs the physicality, the sharpness, the commitment and the investment to be a special team.
“We could not implement that in the last match. That was also due to their quality and capacity to slow the game down and control the match through ball possession.”
The Champions League has, though, witnessed some remarkable turnarounds in the knockout stage down the years. Who will ever forget Barcelona recovering from a 4-0 first-leg deficit against Paris Saint-Germain to advance from the last 16 in 2017? Or Liverpool beating Barcelona 4-0 after losing the first leg 3-0 in the semifinals in 2019?
Tuchel might want to take inspiration from a comeback performed at the Bernabeu six years ago, involving one of his own players.
Mateo Kovacic recalled Monday how the Madrid team he played for in 2016 lost 2-0 to Wolfsburg in the first leg of the quarterfinals and won the second leg 3-0.
Chelsea, Kovacic was keen to stress, has previously come back from a 3-1 first-leg loss to advance in the Champions League knockouts. That was in 2012 — the year the London club won the competition for the first time — when it beat Napoli 4-1 in the second leg in the last 16.
“Football is always surprising,” the Croatia midfielder said.
He sounded more convinced than Tuchel, however, with the German coach calling Chelsea’s task “one of the biggest challenges” in soccer and “almost impossible.”
“But you are always allowed to dream,” he said.
Cesar Azpilicueta is available again after testing negative for the coronavirus, but Romelu Lukaku was not traveling with the squad to Spain on Monday because of an Achilles tendon injury.
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